August 14, 2009


Courtesy, technology go a long way


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
From her wheelchair, Fran Pizzola shops the aisles of Price Chopper in Cortlandville as store employee Sherri Walrad assists by pushing her cart and reaching for items too high for Pizzola to reach.

“Day in a Life” looks at the life of a local resident going about their day.
Living and Leisure Editor

Fran Pizzola said she’s gotten bold in her old age — asking for help if she needs it — even for simple tasks like helping her get a bottle of grape juice from the top shelf at a grocery store.
“I have become a self advocate ... I would never do this before now. If I don’t have anyone with me, I have to ask for help,” she said, during a shopping trip to Price Chopper.
The Cortlandville woman, paralyzed from the chest down after a sledding accident, uses a wheelchair and adapted van for mobility. She agreed to show what it’s like for her to do a food shopping trip.
“My brother calls me the adaptive queen,” said Pizzola, who opened the door to her section of her parent’s home with a push of the button. She has an aide who helps her get ready for the day, a two to three hour task, but after that she can manage on her own. She has a van that has been modified to allow her to drive while in her wheelchair.
In her home, her mom generally does the food shopping, but when Pizzola is having friends over, she does the shopping for the meal. She feels good that she is able to help her parents, Carmella and Mike, more, since she is more independent through her aides and technology. “My mother was my primary caregiver,” she said of the early days after her 1981 accident. “Now I help my mother with her doctor calls.”
Pizzola likes Price Chopper, a store that she can count on for its wide aisles and customer service.
“We have to do this quick, before someone blocks me in,” she said in the parking lot. “People park in the access aisle all the time. And it’s people with handicapped permits.”
Next to some handicapped parking spots are eight feet wide lined access aisles, which are not for parking. People with wheelchairs need the access aisles to get out of their vehicles.
“People wonder why? Why do you need eight foot access aisles. Wheelchairs are big. They need eight feet,” she said.
Pizzola pressed a button for the van door to slide open. The van frame lowered and a ramp extended out, allowing her to wheel down to the ground, into the access aisle. She used every bit of space to get out of the car.
“I had my accident 28 years ago. We had to fight to get one to two spots up. Now everyone is in compliance,” she said.
Pizzola was pivotal in getting those parking spots installed. She is the community education coordinator at Access to Independence, an agency she helped found and used to direct, which advocates for people with disabilities.
“I can’t tell you how many hours I spent talking to people about parking, when there’s so much bigger fish to fry. You need parking because without vehicles, you can’t do anything.”
Pizzola’s van has an electronic gear switch and lock for her wheelchair, which slides under the steering wheel. The steering wheel is smaller then the typical size and Pizzola slips her hand within three knobs to steer the vehicle. Another hand control operates the forward motion and braking ability. Her passenger chair can swing over into the driving position so a family member can drive.
“To get evaluated for the modifications, you need an occupational therapist and a vendor there,” she said. “What can you move,” they ask. Then they adapt the vehicle to a person’s needs. “This is my high beams and lights,” she said of a switch on a hand control. Another button signals the horn. Her elbow can signal the windshield wipers and cruise control.
“My van is an amazing piece of technology,” she said.
Pizzola is on her third vehicle since her college accident.
“The first vehicle, my parents helped me buy. The second vehicle I wrote a plan for (to obtain) it.”
She needed to create a business plan and show that her van was part of her job at Access to Independence, and put aside her Social Security payments to help pay for it.
“It was very involved. It took five years ... I was able to purchase the vehicle through the plan and Vocational and Educational Services for Iundividuals with Disabilities put in the adaptations. Adaptations cost more than the vehicles,” she said. “Adaptations here were close to $30,000,” in her current vehicle. “The van didn’t cost that much.”
She had to be income eligible to qualify and had to be working for the VESID changes to be possible.
At the store, Pizzola asked for a person to push her cart and reach for items she couldn’t. Sometimes she takes an aide with her to help. At Price Chopper, employee Sherri Walrad agreed to push Pizzola’s cart.
“It’s a really great store with big aisles,” she said. “But when we go to JC Penney or Walmart, it’s like a jungle. They put so much in the aisles. Anyone walking around couldn’t get through those things.”
Pizzola and Walrad selected vegetables, mortadella at the deli aisle, catfish fillets and cream cheese.
Seeing into display cases can be a challenge at times, but Pizzola’s chair is able to raise up at the push of a button. What makes a good shopping trip for her is universal. “Probably the way that people treat me — if they are sincerely willing to help and not doing it for their job.”
“I would love to be totally independent in a store or a restaurant. But that’s not realistic. “
She frets at the time she’s taking with the employee helping her, how much time it takes for her to get her money and wallet back into her purse.
“I would like to get in and out like anyone else and go out and sit in the sun, because it’s my day off.”
She had a little smirk when asked if she ever takes advantage of having a disability. “I don’t get many perks,” she said.
But there was the time at the Statue of Liberty in the 90s, and there were signs: one hour wait to crown, two hours to crown, three hours to crown. It was hot. It was a busy week. A ranger walked by and Pizzola said, “What line are we to wait in.”
“You don’t have to wait in any line,” he said, giving Pizzola and her party access to the front.
“Let’s hope my door opens,” she said back at the van. A loud creaking noise erupted and Pizzola had a look of resignation. She’s had the vehicle looked at several times and the manufacturer insists there’s nothing wrong.
“Technology — you love it when it works but when it doesn’t ...”


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